Using eSports science to improve the competitive gaming: An interview with Matthew Pluss

Australia has been absolutely spoiled with the eSports scene as of late.

With people like Scott Kennedy (Custa) representing us on the world stage at the Overwatch League, for the LA Valiant, with the recently sponsored JB Hi-Fi Melbourne eSports open happening, and the even more recent Quake eSports event at PAX Melbourne, not to mention a multitude of inter-uni and independent eSports teams in Australia, the scene has become well established.

From here, the only way is up, and when it comes to sports, there’s science and data we can incorporate, to improve our players.

I got the chance to sit down with Matthew Pluss, a UTS academic whose been looking into sports science in the eSports scene.

What characteristics are you looking into with your research?

There’s a core 3 that we’re interested in at the moment, first one is obviously mental dexterity, so we’re looking at the 5 modes of coordination of both dominant and non-dominant hands cause obviously you use both during performance, the reason we are interested in that is that some games are more dependant on the keyboard movements whereas other ones probably rely more so on the mouse, but also if we think of it’s a console as well, there’s more bi-manual coordination so we’re interested to see do these differ between games but also do they differ between console.

The second one is the speed-accuracy trade-off and the premise behind that is; as you increase the distance between two targets obviously that’s going to decrease the movement speed so we’re looking at a trade-off there and we expect that the best of the best can maintain a higher level of movement speed, as they clip back and forward between targets, and there’s a less of a trade-off there, they can still score a higher level of accuracy as well.

Then the last one is processing ability, so we’re looking at as you increase the amount of stimulus, that’s going to result in an increase of recoverable response time as well so very similar to it as well so we’re looking at if there face with one or two or four stimulus, what’s the actual trade-off there, that might have a simple reaction time of about 251 milliseconds, and they’ve got 4 (stimulus) that might be 400, so we’re looking at how that trade-off there.  

It’s an interesting environment where eSports success is dictated by a matter of milliseconds, what are those characteristics that really do make the best of the best so good at what they do.

Are there technical considerations that go into this research, like lock-on auto-aim on consoles and mouse-points on PC?

Obviously everyone has there own opinion on it, I’ve chosen the software, more so for computer, because you have a lot more control over the settings and also the software that’s in it, so you can standardise it to your own preference or you can change it to whatever you think is the most desirable for your research, whereas sometimes people have more difficulty using a Playstation or an Xbox, in terms of what’s the potential I think a computer has a lot more space as in freedom for researchers, so there’s that, but if you’re going to standardise everything, it’s similar to normal sports where it’s like a debate if you’re having an athlete come in, and they’re going to do a test, do you standardise, and have them not have coffee before they come in to do a test, and that’s obviously something different out of their morning routine as well. Do you standardise everything in eSports to a certain setting or do you allow them to do what their normal day to day is, but then you’ve got to think if you’re trying to find out what are the most desirable characteristics, and one of them is that if they can move the mouse a lot quicker and that’s purely just because they have higher sensitivity, then you’ve got to think of all this standardising just the setting, and watching them adapt is more ideal.

What have been some surprising findings so far with your research?

So we’ve collected quite a lot of data from both professional players so people that are at the highest level of competition, but some recreational-amateur and even some non-gamers as well, we’ve found that the professional players speed of what they can do a manual-dexterity task can be quite variable, but the actual trade-off between dominant and non-dominant hand, there’s nearly next to none, it’s normally quite good within a matter of seconds so, irrespective of what hand, or what’s their dominant and what’s not their dominant, the five modes of coordination are almost the same for both hands. In terms of the speed-accuracy… … the movement speed that they can do it, but also maintaining it across all levels, but also the accuracy is quite different to just a recreational, if not, basically someone with no experience. And then also with the processing ability, it’s, without going into too much detail, adopting certain efficient search strategies allows them to respond quicker than just the typical search pattern, so there’s definitely underlying mechanisms that do differentiate them but hopefully in a couple more months we can delve into it more and publish some of the data. 

How do you think this research into eSports players and their characteristics might improve the eSports scene or maybe how some players approach preparing for eSports tournaments?

I think it’s kind of like a loop, and I think that obviously being an avid eSports fan as well, we need to think like what drives someone to watch the best of the best, but also their favourite players compete, so in my research we can identify what makes these players so good and how did they become so good in the time, and we can kind of feed it back into the industry itself, so we can continue to just let the eSports industry continue to boom and grow – so I guess that’s where my research can come into it, where I can begin to understand the characteristics that make them so good, and we know they’re so good at what they do, but what actually makes them so good but also how do they develop it, how do you get some players that are, just within a matter of a year become a pro but then you’ve got some players that have been playing for a decade so, there’s a lot of questions that need to be answered, and I think that once we know how to approach them and how we can answer these questions, then we can put it…  … back into that loop cycle.

Have you noticed any key differences between players of certain games?

What we’ve kind of found typically just from observations, is tasks like the speed accuracy, FPS players tend to be a bit better, which obviously makes a bit more sense, whereas something more like the MOBA players, they typically prefer a processing ability task, and I think that’s purely just dictated by the nature of the performance, so it’s going to be interesting to see how significant those actual differences are. 

You published an article earlier in the year about practice activities of players, what did you uncover with this research?

Obviously there’s a big misconception in eSports that these players, obviously they play 10 – 12 hours a day but people generalise that that’s what actually attains better performance, so what we did was we’ve collected data from professional players in Counter Strike, and it was in the lead up to a major eSports tournament, what we’re interested to look at was both the quantity and the quality of their performance, as in the preperation cause obviously all teams do boot camps and kind of put them in this environment where they’re just kind of, they just kind of play as much as they can to prepare for the tournaments so we’re interested to see if that actually is the most beneficial way to actually prepare. So the approach wasn’t necessarily different among the pro players population, it was more so their performance in-game during the lead up of the event, so we need to think that playing 10-12 hours a day might not necessarily attain better performance, it’s the actual quality of that performance of how you’re playing, it’s indicative of your total score for performance. 

Massive thanks to Matt Pluss for his time! Matt is still looking for volunteers to contribute to his research on the characteristics of eSports players. 

Image Credit: GameGavel.com

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Zachariah Kelly

A Journo from Sydney who loves looking into the why's who's and what's of Video Games.

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